Interview with Frank London of The Klezmatics
conducted by Benyamin Bresky, May 1, 2006
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: We are here in Tel Aviv with Frank London of the Klezmatics. I guess the first question is, what do you is the difference between Israeli klezmer and other kinds of klezmer now that you're here?
FRANK LONDON: There are a couple really big differences between, let's say, the Israeli approach to klezmer and the American and European approach to klezmer. The first big difference is rhythmic. Israeli music since its inception of an Israeli national folk music became a two-beat music, as opposed to the more poly-rhythmic, East -European cross rhythms of the bulgar. There is also great rhythmic sophistication that generally gets lost in the Israeli approach to klezmer. On the other hand, now I'll contradict that, because there is an approach to klezmer here that's also rhymically complicated, but it's not coming from the East-European as much it's typified by the great Israeli klezmer player Moussa Berlin. It's what they call the Meron beat, which is more of an Arabic style of snare drumming. It's more Mizrachi. It's funny that one of the biggest difference between the klezmer in America and the klezmer in Israel is the rhythm. Neither of them are what I would call rooted to the original East-European bulgar rhythms, especially as they were developed in New York. More of it is much more boring -- the slowed down kind of Fiddler on the Roof -- which is just really horribly kitschy rhythm. Or the very interesting Meron rhythm, which is a wonderful rhythm, which I love. It's very funky. But it's coming from a different place then the klezmer. The other big difference, I think, between klezmer in America and klezmer in Israel is kind of where the klezmer musicians are coming from. Again, there's two major influences in Israeli klezmer that just are not important or not valid in the US, or in the Klezmatics approach, for example. One is Giora Feidman. Giora Feidman is sort of like the pinnacle of Israeli klezmer and yet he's totally unimportant in the American klezmer scene. Yet his approach is a very highly stylized approach which really again is his own personal thing and is related to his influence as a classical clarinet player playing tango and many other musics. Although he personally can play klezmer more in the style of Dave Tarras, that's not what he got known for doing. His accolades, which is many of the people in the Israeli klezmer scene, tend to play more like him and they are not connected to the roots of the music, the East-European and American roots of players like Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras. The other difference is that just because of the sociology of the movements, in the US the klezmer came out of a bigger Yiddish revival movement that was generally tied back to the radical Leftist Yiddish Socialists of 100 years ago and that long tradition of a Yiddish Socialist movement embodied by the Bundists and by the Arbeiter Ring, the Workman's Circle, and newspapers like the Fraye Arbeter Stim -- Free Voice of Labor. These kind of workers movements. When the younger people in the Left in 30 years came back to Yiddishism of which klezmer was a part of that bigger movement, they were coming from a similar social perspective of more of a Leftist Socialist movement. On the contrary, klezmer is Israel is often tied to the religious Jews and often the very Right-Wing religious Jews who still use it as a wedding music in their communities. So you have these real sociological, as well as musical, differences between the two scenes.
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: My G-d, that's the most in-depth answer to any question I've ever asked. Maybe one more question on this subject. Moussa Berlin has said that his music is smoother, and when I listen to the Klezmatics, you kind of rock it out and play some crazy notes.
FRANK LONDON: Let's not make any mistakes. Moussa can really rock it out also. Moussa is a great clarinetist. His playing is great and his bands are great, and he can rock out. We should also take one moment to pay full respect, kol ha kavod, blessed be the memory of Roman Kunsman, who was his sidekick, compatriot, flute/clarinet/saxophone player. One of the greatest musicians we ever met. In fact, to answer your question, after having given the respect, yeah, sometimes we play the smooth way that he's talking about. I know of what he speaks. But I think one of the biggest differences, and this is sort of a Klezmatics approach. The klezmer music, not the Yiddish vocals music. The klezmer music is essentially a dance music. Often played at weddings. We found many years ago that if you're in a concert hall, or a night club or a rock club or someplace where it's not a wedding, it's not a chassene, or its not even a dance club, if people aren't dancing, it felt a little strange for us to just play an hour and a half of dance music when people were sitting in their seats. So we developed an approach to play concerts based on the music, which often includes like you said, using funky harmonies and notes and going out on difference avante garde elements, bringing in other things. But I think the main point of that is to make for an interesting concert. I mean, when we're sitting there at a dance, we'll do much more similar to what Moussa plays. Long medleys of tunes pretty straight, for the people to dance to.
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: So you're here with Ehud Banai. That's really interesting. What does that sound like? Does he play reggae? Is it reggae klezmer? Everyone wants to know how you hooked up.
FRANK LONDON: Is Ehud Banai known as a reggae player?
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: He plays some reggae stuff and this past year he had kind of a reggae tinged song all over the radio.
FRANK LONDON: First of all, we didn't know about this whole reggae thing. We might have done things very differently if we had known. We had some of his older recordings, because he's really famous and he's really great. So we knew some of his music but we didn't know about the reggae part of it. He's a wonderful person, first. Gotta start there. I don't know if you say this, but we say, he's a really mentch. I mean, he's an unbelievable person. So good to be with and so humble and yet so beloved by everyone. I've rarely met a musician who's so beloved by his fans. And with good reason. He's so talented and his heart is in the right place. A open musician. I know I'm not answering your question yet but we're kind of really amazed by what a beautiful person he is and what a beautiful musician. So to get to the question, no, we're not doing reggae klezmer, although that would have been fun. But we didn't know he did that. He wrote us an email saying that he had been listening to an album that we recorded a few years back with Chava Alberstein. On this album, Chava Alberstein took some Yiddish poems and set them to new music, and we accompanied her. Ehud loved the album, so what he did was he took these Yiddish poems with Chava's music and he translated them into Hebrew, which was nice. In fact, she came to the rehearsal to hear him singing her poems. So some of the songs we're playing come from that project. The other, we had his CDs and he sent a list of his songs he thought might be good for us to play with him. A number of Oriental Mizrachi songs which we like very much. Loren, our singer, loves to sing in Hebrew, so he and Ehud are harmonizing together and their singing together in a really lovely way and Ehud is playing both electric guitar on some of our more rock-jazz numbers, and he's playing tar on some his ethnic songs,
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: What instrument is that?
FRANK LONDON: It's called tar. We spell it t-a-r. You probably spell it tav-resh. Tar. It's a Persian string instrument.
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: What about your two new albums that have recently been released? Brother Moses Smote the Water. That was reviewed, I believe, in Ha'aretz newspaper, and it was a good review. So what is that about?
FRANK LONDON: So, as you said, we have two new albums now, because we don't want any grass to grow under our feet, as we say. Interestingly enough they're both holiday albums. We haven't really done holiday albums. Brother Moses Smote the Water, this is an old fashion way of saying -- it talks about Moses, when he takes his staff and hits the Red Sea and it parts so that the Israelites can go through and pass through. But 'smote' is an old English. Past tense of smite. Like we say, you're smitten with love. Smitten, smite, smote. So what's interesting is that there's an amazing singer, baruch Hashem, we are so lucky. Joshua Nelson is an American Jewish singer who comes from New Jersey who has lived in Israel for a number of years and studied at a yeshiva. He is African-American. He's a Black guy. He's not a ba'al teshuva. He's not a convert. He grew up in a long tradition of American Black Jews, which is a really different tradition then most people are familiar with. It's a wonderful tradition. And he's also a gospel singer. He sings gospel music. He sounds like the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. So together with him we did a set of songs around Passover that have to do with the Jewish and Black experience in America. Songs about liberation, about freedom, about ending slavery.
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: Does it sound like klezmer?
FRANK LONDON: Very little. Because we're not really trying to play klezmer. In fact I don't think there's hardly any klezmer on there at all. It sounds Jewish. And it sounds gospel. You see, I use 'klezmer' in a very particular way. Even though the music we play might go very far field, when I talk about it, for me, klezmer means specifically a certain kind of music. So for example, Yiddish song is not klezmer. I don't use "klezmer" to mean just anything Jewish or anything Yiddish. Klezmer is strictly the instrumental music. That's kind of the definition of klezmer. We do a song call Ki Lo Enueh, from the end of the Hagadah. Its a version of it that comes from the great singer Moishe Oysher. It's definitely part of the Yiddish song tradition. So the rhythms are bulgarish klezmer rhythms. But its mostly a vocal record, so there's very little klezmer. There's klezmer influences. You got to realize, most of the people in the Klezmatics were rock and soul players before we were klezmer players.
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: I always try and ask the musicians I interview, "what is Jewish music.' I read an article by you were you say that the most requested song at weddings and other Jewish celebrations you play is Celebration by Kool and the Gang. So maybe in 100 years, people will think Celebration is a Jewish song.
FRANK LONDON: OK. Good question. And this is one that's I've thought about a lot. The example you're talking about is my way of arguing by making an absurd point. And what I was arguing against was definition by function. There as an old definition from 100 years ago by Kurt Sachs, one of the first ethnomusicologists and one of the most important ones. He said that Jewish music is music made by Jews, as Jews, for Jews. This is a very problematic definition. I mean, he was trying. But I could shoot that definition out of the water very quickly. In fact, when you have a Hasidic band playing Celebration at a Jewish wedding, it fits Kurt Sachs definition. It's being played by Jews. It's played as Jews, meaning the musicians are not trying to pass as something else, and their playing for Jews. So by his definition at that wedding, Celebration is Jewish music. But it's not. In the Talmud, one of the ways you disprove things is by proving that it's so obviously false. But I have to tell you something. My wife is from Germany. The first time she came to hear me play at a Hasidic wedding in New York she started laughing so hard like I've never see. I said, why are you laughing? She said, don't you know? And it turns out one of the most popular Hasidic songs for the last 15 years is a really terrible German pop song that she grew up with as a kid. Really horrible German pop song that they put Hebrew words to. So what is Jewish music? I think the most important thing is asking the question. I've talked with a lot of academics and there really is not a good answer to it. I mean, there really isn't one that can work. So I'll tell you my answer for me about what is Jewish music. Not what is klezmer. Not what is Israeli music. Not what is Mizrachi music. But what is Jewish music? I would accept almost anything. No, no! I'll tell you! With only on exception. So yes, a music that comes from a particular group of Jewish people -- any of the Jewish ethnic musics -- whether it's klezmer or Persian Jewish music. These are all Jewish music. I would say a music that's based on Jewish texts can be thought of as Jewish music. I would say a music that serves a Jewish liturgical function is Jewish music. On and on. Almost anything the composer/performer chooses to identify as Jewish music, I won't argue with them. Because for me it's a waste-of-time argument. I'd rather argue, what are they trying to do? Do they do it well, do they do it badly? So if someone wants to say that the sound of a baby crying is klezmer, I'm like, OK. Great. Whatever. Get a life. However, there's one thing I don't except as being Jewish music. That's when some people say that any music made by a Jew is Jewish music. We have to think this through to it's conclusion. So they'll say, oh, that's Jewish music because the guy's Jewish. Well that's bull. By that logic, the Nazis were correct in firing the Jewish musicians from the orchestras in Europe. Because if everything a Jew does is Jewish, then we can't help it. Everything we do is Jewish. So therefore, they're right. When we play Mozart, we sound like Jews. But this is such bull. We have to realize that music might have its roots in a certain place, but once a music becomes a style, anyone, if they're good enough and talented and do enough work, can learn to perform that style authentically. In fact some of the greatest geniuses in every kind of music have come from outside the group that invented that music. That doesn't mean that the music doesn't come from that group, that means that if someone's talented enough, they can play it. So I disagree with someone saying, oh, so and so is Jewish, therefore their music is Jewish music. The best example is Benny Goodman. Benny Goodman would never have identified his music as Jewish music. He would say he's playing, whatever they called it then. Black music. Jazz. That's not Jewish music. You can't assign that label to someone. If Sherenberg wants to say that Moses and Aaron, the opera is a Jewish piece because it's based on this great Jewish text, even though the music is totally abstract -- yes we could say that it's classical music that comes from a certain tradition, but if we want to put it under the cannon of music that we discuss as Jewish music, for argument's sake, why not? And then we see where that discussion gets us. So I'm basically very open to anything that someone wants to call Jewish music. And then, rather then argue, that's not Jewish music, that is, let's say, OK where does it get us to label this music as Jewish music? What ideas does it open up in our minds? Because the reverse is to say that Jewish music is only music that sounds like klezmer. Which is a joke. So there's lots of types of Jewish music. So I've very open in the definition until someone gives me a really good definition that I can't shoot down.
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: So what's your definition of klezmer?
FRANK LONDON: Like I say, my definition is pretty easy. You could then say, well what you play isn't klezmer. I say, who cares? I never said it was. I said I'm strict about the definition. I'm not strict about saying, therefore I have to play only music that fits the definition. Do you see the difference? I'm not limited by it. Because I believe, as a Jew, in "the word". Like it says, "In the beginning there was 'the word'". Like G-d, with the word, we create. So the way that's trickled down to me is I believe that words are really , really important, and how we use words. Therefore it offends me when people misuse the words -- when people use the words to fit their own meaning instead. So you said, "how much klezmer is there on the new Brother Moses Smote the Water?" And I said almost none. And you gave a look. The radio audience can't see, but you looked a little shocked by that answer. And the point is because I'm strict about what I use the word klezmer to mean.
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: Well the article said that it as a very nice mix of klezmer and other music.
FRANK LONDON: Because the article is isn't strict about what they use the word klezmer to mean. It's like the word jazz. People use the word jazz to mean many things that have nothing to do with jazz. They almost think that jazz is an attitude rather then a type of music. So the definition is really easy. Klezmer is the instrumental music -- not vocals because then its not klezmer -- instrumental music of the East-European Jews who spoke the Yiddish language and the way that that music developed in the Diaspora. But I don't mean the Galus, I mean only from East-Europe. As the East-European Jews from The Pale and came to America and Buenos Aires, Israel. Any music that comes from that route, that's what klezmer music is. It's really simple. If it's a vocal music, it might be related to klezmer, but it's called Yiddish vocal music or folk music or Yiddish theater music. It's just technically not klezmer. The songs might be exactly the same. The style might be the same. This is just a text book definition. The klezmer musicians would accompany singers and in the middle. So you might say that this Yiddish theater song has a klezmer accompaniment. That might be a valid way to put it. Because it describes the instrumental music. But if it's tied to that particular music, that came out of that particular time and place that was developed starting, you could say, in the 18th century, flowering in the mid 19th, mid 20th century. First in Eastern Europe, all the way from Poland, Belarus, as far south as Moldova and Romania, which is my favorite area for klezmer music, as far north as into Galicia and into Poland, and Lithuania, the Litvaks. So the instrumental music of those Jews. And the commonality of those Jews is that they spoke Yiddish. There were some Ladino speaking Jews in East Europe. Especially in Bosnia for example. But their music was not klezmer. So klezmer is the instrumental music of the Eastern European Yiddish speaking Jews and it's the way that that particular music developed outside of that area. And that doesn't mean anything! Because all that counts when were playing a concert is not the definition, all that counts when were playing a concert is, is it good music?
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: Let's talk about your other album now. The Woody Guthrie thing.
FRANK LONDON: The other new album is a Hanuka record. It has to do with the American folk song writer/singer/genius Woody Guthrie, who had a whole Jewish life because he was married to a Jewish woman. And his kids are Jewish. In fact in a weird bit of how-totally-weird-is-this-world-that-we -live-in way, Arlo Guthrie, Woody Guthrie's son, the guy that wrote Alice's Restaurant, got Bar Mitzvahed, and his rabbi in Brooklyn was a young rabbi named Meir Kahane. So the world is a very strange place. So in any case, Woody Guthrie had a Jewish family life, among other lives. He and his wife professed that they were all religions. They didn't want anything that limited them. So that was part of it. And we've been working with his family and we've been writing new music to the words. Some of the words, not all of them, are Hanukah words. So we made a set of eight Hanuka songs with words by Woody Guthrie and music by us. We put it out as Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanuka in a special hand-made CD cover that folds into a dreidel. It's really fun. The next album we make is going to be a whole album of Woody Guthrie songs, but not the Hanuka songs. Spiritual music and fun music and political music.
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: You have another band called Hasidic New Wave and I guess that's not klezmer at all.
FRANK LONDON: You're right. I have another band that's not klezmer and its called Hasidic New Wave This is with me and Greg Wall, who's a great, great saxophone player, genius tenor saxophone player, and he and I went to school together. We were playing free jazz and avante garde and progressive music. Then we both moved to New York around the same time and we met again playing Hasidic wedding gigs. So we went from playing free jazz together to playing Hasidic wedding gigs and one day we sort of said to each other, you know, there's some really good music in this Hasidic wedding stuff mixed with a lot of shlock, a lot of kitsch, like that German pop song I told you about. The German song was originally called Dschingis Khan, and it became Yidden! If you wanted to do good research, you could play on the radio a little bit of the Dschingis Khan and a little bit of the Hasidic Yidden. So we said, but there's some really good songs here, these Hasidic niggunim -- which are related to klezmer, because they're coming from the same people, and the same time and place. Hasidism was one of the movements of East-European Yiddish speaking Jews. So obviously, the music is going to be related. It's not like Hasidic niggunim and klezmer are totally unrelated. That's nonsense. They're two parts of the same people's music. I just use the distinction. That's what words are for. So what we did is we took a lot of Hasidic niggunim, not klezmer instrumental melodies, but more Hasidic music, and mixed it with a kind of free jazz and rock and stuff like that.
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: I guess this is about the end of the interview and this is where I say, "for more information." So maybe a good way of ending this is to ask you about KlezCamp. What is KlezCamp? Can I go to KlezCamp?
FRANK LONDON: Actually, yes. And even better, there are many of these kind of klezmer teaching events that we are involved with. One of them is KlezCamp which is in New York in December. But there's an event in London called Klez Fest London in July. This year the Klezmatics, the entire group, will be the featured guest teachers at Klez Fest London. So yeah, you can come to one of these kind of events. You're more then welcome. But if you want to get in touch with me or with the Klezmatics, you can go to the Klezmatics web site, www.Klezmatics.com. It's not a very pretty web site. I saw a local punk klezmer band here in Tel Aviv who has a really great web site. I love it. Kruzenshtern & Parohod. Ours is a little bit just more functional. But what's good is threes a link to a chat page so if people have any questions they can write us questions there on a bulletin board, its a great way to get in touch with people.
ISRAEL NATIONAL RADIO: Anything else you want to say about Israel, or your music or anything else?
FRANK LONDON: I really, really, really hope to come back to keep on doing project here. to keep on doing more collaborative work with local Israeli artists. There is such a rich and powerful Jewish culture here. I'm talking with people also about something I'm very interested in. For me as an outsider, the most interesting thing, the most enticing thing is the Mizrachi culture. Especially musically. I'm really interested in the question of whether there is an alternative aesthetic Ashkenazic Yiddish cultural movement parallel to the one that's burgeoning in the US. So I'm interested in talking to local Israelis about that question and learning more about that also. As well as continuing to work with all the great progressive musicians and artists from other backgrounds here in Israel.